Train Services (Fife)

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:05 pm on 13th April 2005.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 5:05 pm, 13th April 2005

The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S2M-2482, in the name of Scott Barrie, on the quality of Fife's train services. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the importance of the rail network to an efficient public transport system in east central Scotland; notes previous debates in the Parliament that highlighted the poor service offered to Fifers by train operators in respect of reliability and punctuality; regrets that the improvements made to the rail infrastructure in Fife, including longer platforms and increased capacity, are still not meeting the level of demand; notes that the service has failed to improve under the new franchisee; believes that the current level of train cancellation and late running is unacceptable, and further believes that First ScotRail, in particular, must ensure that it improves its performance so that a viable alternative to car usage is available.

Photo of Scott Barrie Scott Barrie Labour 5:11 pm, 13th April 2005

I thank all members who supported the motion in my name, particularly those Fife colleagues who are present this evening and who regularly use the train to travel to and from the Parliament.

In December 1999, a members' business debate co-sponsored by Helen Eadie and Tricia Marwick was held to highlight the poor performance of rail services in Fife. Incidentally, I thank Ms Marwick for her support for my motion and for her interest in and work on the subject. I am sure that all members will understand her absence tonight, given her happy news at becoming a granny a couple of days ago.

In that debate held more than five years ago, members highlighted the chronic deficiencies in Fife's rail system—the severe overcrowding, the dire lack of punctuality and the abysmal record on cancellations. Replying to that debate, the then Minister for Transport and the Environment, Sarah Boyack, said:

"although we are trying to persuade and encourage people out of their cars and on to buses and trains, the Fife rail service is not a good advert ... ScotRail is also a net beneficiary by several million pounds a year from incentive payments that it receives from the shadow strategic rail authority, because historically it has exceeded its punctuality and reliability targets across most of the Scottish network. The situation in Fife is not one that the company will want to allow to continue."—[Official Report, 15 December 1999; Vol 3, c 1617-18.]

However, in spite of those statements, the situation in Fife remains poor some five and a half years later.

My motivation in lodging the motion was predicated on the continuing poor performance of Fife trains and the constant complaints by users of those services since that debate. Letters to ministers, questions in the chamber, meetings with representatives of train operators past and present and letters of complaint have all resulted in the promise of a better service, but until recently there was little sign of that occurring.

I am grateful for Nicol Stephen's letter of 17 March—a copy has been placed in the Scottish Parliament information centre—in response to my written question S2W-13912. The response showed that, until the beginning of January this year, the east coast suburban group of services within the ScotRail franchise, which includes all of Fife's services, met its punctuality and reliability targets only on seven of the past 60 four-week accounting periods. The last one of those was away back in October 2000. That has cost the franchise holders £7.5 million in financial penalties. According to the figures that I saw at Waverley station this morning, those damning statistics are still with us. In the four weeks before the end of March, punctuality was only 79 per cent, with a yearly average of less than 75 per cent, and reliability was at a 98.9 per cent yearly average—the worst of the seven discrete service groupings in the ScotRail franchise.

With that level of performance, it is no wonder that the queues on the Forth road bridge are getting longer and starting earlier. At the heart of tonight's debate is the lack of an adequate public transport system, rail in particular. Currently, some 25,000 people travel out of Fife every day to work, of whom 11,500 head to Edinburgh city centre. Those commuters have only three real options: car, bus or train. Developments such as the Ferrytoll park and ride have made bus travel much more attractive and the expansion of that facility by the addition of a multistorey car park is to be welcomed. However, similar developments at our railway stations are overdue. Car parks at Dunfermline, Inverkeithing and Kirkcaldy stations are inadequate; all of them are full before the morning commuter rush is over. Even if we were to get the improvements in services that we are looking for, the knowledge that a car park space is unavailable is a major contributory factor in the decision that many commuters make to stick with their cars instead of attempting to take the train.

We should acknowledge the improvements that have been made to train services in Fife. However, those improvements have been piecemeal and, in some instances, have come later than promised. All the station platforms on the Fife circle have been lengthened and new rolling stock has found its way to Fife, but—and it is a big but—our services continue to face considerable problems. As I indicated, punctuality and reliability of service at peak times are issues of particular concern.

In one five-day period in February, the 07:11 train from Dunfermline Town was cancelled on three occasions. On 2 March, I found that the 06:55 and 07:11 trains had been cancelled. The next train, which was effectively the first train that day from Dunfermline, was nearly 10 minutes late. On my return journey that night, the 18:25 out of Waverley was some 25 minutes late. It was particularly galling that First ScotRail had issued a nice glossy brochure that day, in which it told travellers how services in Scotland were improving. Unfortunately, that view was not shared by my fellow travellers on the Fife circle that day.

I appreciate that 2 March was a particularly bad day. However, as regular Fife circle travellers know, peak-hour trains are late more often than not, particularly in the morning. Most regular commuters know that, in order to ensure that they arrive on time, they will have to take a train before their timetabled one.

A lot of the difficulties are caused by a lack of capacity at Waverley. The station redevelopment is crucial to ensuring that the current timetable is manageable. I applaud the fact that the Executive is committed to and is funding the initiative, which should be complete by 2007. I hope that the minister will confirm today that the project is on track—if he will forgive the pun.

All of us know that a reliable and efficient rail system is vital for volume commuting. Although other projects, such as a ferry service across the Forth, should be explored and supported, the only currently viable way of reducing road traffic on the existing Forth road bridge is to improve rail services. People have to travel in and out of Edinburgh and to and from Fife. For that to happen, it is essential that our rail services are reliable and efficient and that they offer Fifers the public transport system that we need and deserve.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party 5:18 pm, 13th April 2005

As a regular user of the Fife circle line, I welcome the opportunity to debate Scott Barrie's motion. I am grateful to him for giving the chamber the chance to debate the issue today.

I agree with much of what Scott Barrie said. Like him, I recognise that rail services for Fifers are not what they should be and that they certainly require significant improvement. However, I hope that he will forgive me for saying that the motion is somewhat simplistic. For him to have heaped all the problems and blame on to First ScotRail is simplistic, given the complex nature of the arrangements for rail services in Scotland.

I agree that rail services will improve when powers are transferred to Scottish ministers on 1 April 2006. However, the complex arrangements for investing in and running the railways that Fifers use at the moment involve Network Rail, the Scottish Executive, the Strategic Rail Authority and even Fife Council. It can be argued that Network Rail is as much to blame for the unreliability and lack of punctuality of rail services as First ScotRail is and that the SRA is as much to blame for the lack of investment in longer platforms as the franchisee is.

As First ScotRail happens to be the public face of the railway system in Scotland, it has to take much of the heat. However, I have no doubt in my mind that, although the proposed transfer of powers will improve the situation on the rail lines in Scotland, more control will need to be exercised in future over Network Rail, which in turn will need to have a great deal more transparency in its operations.

I know from personal experience and from speaking to other regular travellers that railway users in Fife not only suffer from reliability and punctuality issues, but are affected by the cost issue, which is one of the main contentions raised with me. Some passengers perceive that the Fife line is being used to subsidise other lines in Scotland. As far as Fifers are concerned, they are being hit with a double whammy too far, because not only do they have to pay tolls to cross the bridge, but—according to some of the available figures—they may be subsidising the rest of the line. For instance, on the Edinburgh to Dunfermline line, which is of the order of 19 miles, people are paying 20p per mile to use the service, whereas on the Edinburgh to Bathgate line the cost is 17p and on the Edinburgh to North Berwick line the cost is about 15p. I hope that the minister agrees that it is time that we had price rationalisation in Scotland, so that Fifers do not become the milk cows for the rest of the network.

As far as improvements are concerned, First ScotRail took over running the services only towards the end of last year and it will take a bit of time for it to get to grips with the whole system. There was improvement in the last period on the whole of the east coast line—perhaps not in Fife—but that has slipped back badly because of the storms at the beginning of the year and because the network was closed down by Network Rail for two days. First ScotRail has had to deal with those issues.

Scott Barrie is right to identify the fact that capacity at Waverley is the big issue for Fife. That might not seem to be the case for people getting on the train at Inverkeithing, but it is the big issue that has to be sorted out to deal with the problems in the long term. However, we need to jump forward in vision terms. Scott Barrie mentioned car parking. The situation is a nightmare for the people who live in Inverkeithing. Perhaps it is time to consider a new station to the north of Inverkeithing with dedicated parking facilities to take the heat off Inverkeithing and to improve car parking in the area. There is no reason why we cannot in the longer term have a bus-rail interchange with designated car parking facilities in the Halbeath area. That could take some of the pressure off the Forth road bridge.

I recognise that you have given me extra time, Presiding Officer, for which I am grateful.

Photo of Marilyn Livingstone Marilyn Livingstone Labour 5:23 pm, 13th April 2005

I congratulate Scott Barrie on securing this important debate for Fife. As he mentioned, Helen Eadie and Tricia Marwick previously co-sponsored a debate on the matter. All my fellow MSPs from across the parties fought for an improved service before that debate and have done so since.

There is no doubt that we need an effective, efficient and accessible public transport service and there is no doubt that rail will play a big part in that. Such a service is crucial for the economic, social and environmental well-being of my constituency—and the constituencies of my colleagues who are here this evening—and it depends on a reliable, timeous, accessible and safe rail service. Like Scott Barrie, Bruce Crawford, Christine May, Helen Eadie and others, I travel on the Fife line, so I have first-hand experience of the issues that face the people whom I represent.

Like Scott Barrie, I welcome the improvements that have been made to the line, including the lengthening of platforms and the new rolling stock. I also welcome the extension of the park-and-ride facility at Inverkeithing. Crucially, however, the facility's impact on central and east Fife will be reduced because of people's problems in getting to the park and ride in the first place as a result of traffic congestion at the bridgehead. We must have a service that people can use in confidence if we are to see a reduction in car usage. We all want and are striving for environmental improvements for our own areas, for Scotland and the world. We all want such improvements and we need to reduce car usage—the issue is as simple as that.

As I said, I am pleased with the improvements that there have been and I support the development of Waverley station. I will not rehearse what my colleagues have said, except to agree that the development needs to go ahead as soon as possible if there is to be sufficient capacity. I urge the minister to support that development. Bruce Crawford and Scott Barrie put the case well and gave the statistics, which, again, I will not rehearse.

In the short time that is available to me, I want to bring the issue of parking to the attention of members. There is a parking issue not only in Kirkcaldy, but in Burntisland and in Kinghorn. People come from all over the constituency to car parks in those places.

I also want to deal with overcrowding at peak times and health and safety matters. I was on a train around three weeks ago, when the rolling stock had been reduced and an announcement told us not to put baggage in the doorways or anything in the corridors. However, by the time that we reached the Gyle, there was no room for anything—there was standing room only and people were crushed in like sardines, to use a phrase that I used in my previous speech on the matter. It seems irrelevant to say that people cannot put luggage in spaces when they can be packed in like sardines. I sometimes worry about safety implications.

Scott Barrie mentioned reliability. People will not use trains if they are not reliable.

Let me make a bid for access for people with impairments. I am a member of the Equal Opportunities Committee and am sure that all members would agree that access needs to be improved across our public services. In addition, there should be more rail halts, particularly in the east of my constituency. That would be helpful.

There are too many issues for me to discuss, but I agree with Bruce Crawford that cost is a major deterrent for people on the Fife line. That issue needs to be addressed. I can also give many instances of overcrowding and of rolling stock being reduced—five-carriage trains are often reduced to two-carriage trains. Fife needs a reliable and efficient rail service—that is a central issue if we are to see the improvements that we want in Fife's economy and environment.

Photo of Ted Brocklebank Ted Brocklebank Conservative 5:27 pm, 13th April 2005

I, too, congratulate Scott Barrie on securing the debate. It is important that as many people as possible are made aware that the east coast service is the worst performing of First ScotRail's seven divisions, and that the Fife services attract most complaints of all. Equally, I also accept much of what Bruce Crawford said—the issue should not be all about laying the blame on First ScotRail, some of whose representatives I see in the gallery.

In one of my first speeches in the chamber, I welcomed an invitation that Iain Smith extended to the Minister for Transport—Nicol Stephen—to come and experience for himself the less-than-exquisite torture that is a peak-hour commuter journey between the kingdom of Fife and Edinburgh. I gather that the minister has not yet made time in his busy diary to make that journey, but I look forward to his eventual comments.

I accept that there has been improvement since First ScotRail took on the contract and that there have been longer trains at peak times. I also welcome the recent meetings that I have had with the company's management and the promise of eventual local meetings. However, the improvement typically means that when I pile aboard the 6.10 evening train for Dyce via Leuchars Junction, I usually have to wait only until Kirkcaldy before I get a seat. In the old days, I had to wait until Leuchars.

Once a person gets a seat, the configuration on most First ScotRail trains is such that if their frame is less than sylph-like or their height is slightly greater than that of Ronnie Corbett, they risk deep vein thrombosis as a result of the contortions that they must go through to keep their legs out of the passageway. Alternatively, they can get their face slapped by the lady next to them who thinks that they are trying to play kneesy. The journey between Waverley and Leuchars lasts only for about an hour and 10 minutes, so it can be argued that the discomfort is finite; however, sadly, the times in the timetable are rarely met.

Leaving aside the usual hazards of slow-moving trains in front and leaves on the line, there have been interesting delays in recent weeks. Only the other day, a chap slipped and broke his leg as a train reached Markinch. The station was unmanned, so the resourceful conductor had to tend to the injured man on the platform after having phoned for an ambulance. A wait of around 40 minutes ensued. I am not suggesting that injured or sick train passengers should not be tended; indeed, I commend conductors generally for doing an excellent job in trying conditions. However, the impression is that there is a skeleton staff who perform above and beyond the call of duty and who have often to try to sell tickets as well as carry out other tasks because stations are unmanned either as a matter of policy or because of the non-availability of staff.

Recently, the minister told the relevant committee that the Executive would provide £115 million for the new Borders railway. This is not the time for me, as a member of the Waverley Railway (Scotland) Bill Committee, to give my views about the economic viability or otherwise of the proposed line, but in the press and elsewhere real fears have been expressed about the number of passengers that the line is likely to attract. I ask members to compare that with the packed services that regularly travel up and down the main east coast line, which must be one of the most lucrative routes in the country. However—as we have heard—more and more passengers are joining the growing queues of motorists because they are fed up with the discomfort and delays. It is estimated that 60,000 car journeys a day are made across the Forth road bridge. This summer, major repairs will again cause huge delays and long-suffering commuters will have to make a judgment about which source of discomfort and delay is worse: the road journey or the rail journey.

I have two more brief points to make about rail services in Fife. If the Executive believes that £115 million is value for money for a rail link to the Borders, what about spending a fraction of that sum to restore the old rail link from Thornton Junction to Levenmouth and the east neuk of Fife? Such a line would serve about 50,000 people and would do much to take the weight off the narrow roads in that area.

My final plea is for consideration of a 21st century rail link for the only university town in the UK that does not have a railway. I refer, of course, to St Andrews. Currently, St Andrews passengers are dumped at Leuchars, from where there are few interconnecting buses. I am not suggesting full restoration of the previous rail service between Leuchars and St Andrews, but what about an electric monorail? The journey is only 3.5 miles, compared to the Waverley line's 35 miles. On the continent and in airports throughout the world, unmanned monorails are part of the normal transport infrastructure. Why should we not have one to the seat of Scotland's oldest university, the home of golf, one of the nation's hottest tourist spots and a world heritage site apparent? That could be achieved at a fraction of the cost of the Waverley line and could vastly enhance Fife's local transport infrastructure, which is what the debate is about.

Photo of Mr Andrew Arbuckle Mr Andrew Arbuckle Liberal Democrat 5:32 pm, 13th April 2005

I thank Scott Barrie for securing the debate. He provided excellent facts and figures to support his motion. I will boil it down to individual experiences, which is really what the matter comes down to.

Earlier today, I was expecting a visitor from Kirkcaldy who was coming to the Scottish Parliament. He phoned to say that the train had been held up because of a loose rail on the line, and his one-hour journey became a two-and-a-half-hour marathon. My parliamentary assistant, who lives close to the station in Cupar, started using the train service to come over to Edinburgh, but after two months of using a service in which delays are endemic, she has reverted to car use. She was also discouraged from rail travel by travel conditions that would not be allowed for movement of livestock—I speak from personal experience.

My colleague Margaret Smith reports to me that she knows similarly exasperated rail users on the south side of the Forth. Not only do those who wait for trains in Dalmeny often find that the trains are full to capacity at rush hour, but they also experience trains vanishing unannounced from the timetable. When the trains do run on time, there is a certain smug satisfaction for those of us who are on the train as we cross the Forth rail bridge and look over to the traffic queues on the road bridge. If we can get the trains to run on time and improve their carrying capacity, there may be no need for passengers to look over at the road bridge to check the queues—the queues will not be there. Many people who cross the Forth road bridge into Edinburgh use cars not out of preference, but because there is only a second-rate rail alternative.

The Rail Passengers Committee Scotland recently welcomed the introduction of modern trains and the longer platforms that are now in use in some stations, but its survey also pointed to poor punctuality and unreliability, which Scott Barrie and others have mentioned and which are major negative factors. It is galling to me that although the Scottish Executive has invested more money in ScotRail, most of the benefits of that investment have not come through. An example of that is that, although the long-awaited improvement of Markinch station has featured on Fife Council's capital plan for more than two years, there is still little sign of movement. My one worry is that the present problems with punctuality and reliability will be made worse by the hoped-for future station openings at Wormit, Newburgh and Bridge of Earn and the reopening of the Leven link.

I thank Ted Brocklebank for supporting a St Andrews rail link. He will know that my Fife Council colleague Jane Ann Liston has fought that campaign for many a year and may fight it for many a year yet.

This might not be well known, but moves are being made to bring back to Fife the last two steam engines that are registered to run on the rail network. Perhaps those early 20th century engines should be brought into service to help to solve the problems of the 21st century.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green 5:35 pm, 13th April 2005

I thank Scott Barrie for introducing the topic for debate. Many MSPs are rail users; I am one because I commute from Dunblane. Many of the issues that people throughout Fife face are faced by people in Stirling, Perth and throughout Mid Scotland and Fife. Those problems are poor punctuality, inadequate car parking at stations, lack of consistent information when services are disrupted and delays such as we have experienced during upgrading of station infrastructure.

I will focus on the key issue of station infrastructure. If we are serious about achieving a modal shift and about getting on to rail services the people who at the moment have little alternative but to drive to work and in their leisure time, we need a dramatic improvement in our rail infrastructure and we need new stations. Some of the stations that Scotland needs are in Fife in towns such as Methil and Leven, which have low car ownership and from where high numbers of people commute to Dundee and Edinburgh.

I commend much of what is in Fife Council's draft 20-year structure plan, which examines the need gradually to bring on board new stations at Wormit and Newburgh, and the potential for a Kirkcaldy east station. It even considers the potential to reopen to passenger traffic the line from Kincardine to Dunfermline.

In order to get investment and to reopen stations, hard choices will have to be made at Executive level. The Executive is about to spend nearly £1 billion on the M74. I said "about to spend", but it is clear that the Executive has already been spending quite a lot of money in buying up land along the route of the motorway. If the Executive also spends £1 billion on a second Forth road bridge, that will taken even more money away from the vital station infrastructure that we need in Fife.

I turn to a key Liberal Democrat commitment: the St Andrews rail route. There is cross-party consensus that we need the St Andrews rail route to be reopened some time in the next five or 10 years. That would be great, but where will the money come from? The most recent estimate of the cost of the route from Leuchars to St Andrews was that it would be about £36 million, which is the equivalent of about 270m of the M74. Where will the money come from? All politicians in Fife must choose whether we support motorways, such as the M74, and a second Forth road bridge—which would be a vast waste of money that would only increase congestion—or whether we support an inflated proposal for an Edinburgh airport link, which is not needed.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

No—I am in my last minute. The Edinburgh airport link is not needed to get direct trains from Fife to Glasgow, given that a loop runs from the Forth rail bridge to Linlithgow. Our supporting those projects would take money away from station reopenings at Wormit, Leven, Methil, Newburgh and St Andrews. We cannot have both. The minister has a difficult job and limited money.

It is time to choose.

We also need to focus on rail resources. We have a rail bridge and the Executive has invested in the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine route, which will take coal trains off the bridge. The minister knows that if the Executive invested in the signalling infrastructure on the historic Forth rail bridge, even more passenger trains could cross it. I ask the minister—as I have asked many times over the past two years—what progress he is making on ensuring that there will be an upgrade of signalling on the Forth rail bridge to ensure greater capacity.

We all need infrastructure that provides viable alternatives to car use. All of us—including myself; I, too, drive a car—need that infrastructure, but we cannot sustain investment in such infrastructure if we persist with white-elephant projects such as the M74 extension and the potentially ridiculous second Forth road bridge.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 5:40 pm, 13th April 2005

I congratulate Scott Barrie on securing tonight's debate. I confess that I sometimes meet him either on the train or leaving it. In recent months, I have seen him on occasion being changed from a handsome young back bencher to a gibbering wreck as a result of train performances.

However, yesterday's experience was different. The train that Scott Barrie and I catch arrived not only without being late by the five minutes that are counted as being on time for the purposes of the figures but bang on time, in the plain English sense of that phrase. The return journey yesterday evening was also only one minute late. I thought, "Goodness. Has all that been achieved just by one motion in the Scottish Parliament?" However, reality returned this morning, when my train was one hour and five minutes late.

I have another confession to make: not only am I an ex-employee of British Rail, but I was a season ticket holder on the Fife line for about 10 years. Unless I am suffering from nostalgia for the good old days, it seems to me that the punctuality of the service is no better and probably a bit worse than it was when I used it every day during the 1980s. For short journeys such as most of those that are undertaken on the Fife services, punctuality is the most important thing for customers.

Today's delay, which also affected Andrew Arbuckle's visitor, was due to a broken rail. That was not the fault of First ScotRail, which can do nothing about that kind of problem. However, like most passengers, I do not really care who is to blame when my train ends up being late. Although the measurement of minutes late due to operator might be a good internal tool by which First ScotRail can motivate its staff to ramp up punctuality, it is not a good marketing tool for explaining to travellers why their train is late.

Equally, there is not much point in us just moaning if we fail to recognise the nature of the problem. One issue is the popularity of the product. Over the past 20 years, train usage has vastly increased, at least in Fife. The second car park at Inverkeithing was only being built when I was a season ticket holder. Today, anyone who arrives there after about 10 to 8 will find it difficult to park. I agree with the Rail Passengers Committee Scotland that we need more car parking.

It is clear that we also need more services and trains, although we have already had increases in services and bigger trains. One of the better results of privatisation was that the train operating companies introduced much-needed better rolling stock, which was never allowed to British Rail when it was under the dead hand of the Treasury under both Conservative and Labour Governments.

I want to highlight the need for infrastructure investments. We now have a very busy and unforgiving railway between Edinburgh and Fife. If one train runs late during the morning or evening peak, the whole timetable tends to be shot. Without serious investment, the bottlenecks at Inverkeithing, at the Forth bridge and in Edinburgh will not go away. My worry is that the promised and planned capacity improvements at Waverley will be used to try to squeeze in more trains rather than to allow the existing services to have a better chance of running on time. As Mark Ruskell mentioned, the Fife services will not be improved without improvements to the signalling to increase the capacity between Princes Street Gardens and Inverkeithing.

Finally, I want to pick up on the fact that much of the debate about railways contains an inherent contradiction, which has been echoed in tonight's debate. We have heard desires for better services, more staff on the platforms, new lines, new stations and—hey presto—lower fares as well. Somebody needs to get real. If we want to achieve all those very desirable objectives, we need to realise that someone has to pay for them.

Photo of Christine May Christine May Labour 5:44 pm, 13th April 2005

I thank both Scott Barrie for lodging the motion and all the speakers so far, who have made some very good points.

Like many others who travel in from Fife, I use the trains. Rail services are an essential tool for a growing economy. They are also important for sustainability and environmental considerations, as Mark Ruskell pointed out. That modal shift—the moving of travellers from cars to trains and buses—has been a goal in Fife for as long as I have been involved in politics, which is about 17 years. The development of the new stations at Dalgety Bay and Dunfermline Queen Margaret was made possible by a concerted effort by public agencies and the train operators to make it easy for commuters to use the trains—they were actively encouraged to do so. When the Treasury would not give the rail companies money for rolling stock, it gave Fife Council capital consent to buy trains. That is how we did it.

I hope that we will be able to use that model to prove to the minister, in time, that we have a positive business case for reopening the station at Leven. We will put in place the improvements at Markinch and Kirkcaldy so that we can encourage that growth of passenger traffic on trains. Once we have stabilised that growth, we will have evidence of a core market that we can show the minister. At that point, I will be knocking on the door of the minister—or his successor, if he is not still there—to say, "How about it now?" I am pleased that improvements at Markinch are in the Fife structure plan and the Levenmouth regeneration plan, but I am becoming frustrated at the delay in getting them off the ground. I am extremely frustrated by the fact that the council and Network Rail have been unable to reach agreement. Again, I will be knocking on the minister's door—rather sooner in this regard—to discuss that matter with him.

As others have said, continuing and increasing use of trains in Fife is dependent on the existence of a reliable service. I am lucky; I get my train from a mainline station and I try to ensure that I always get an intercity train, because their reliability is better and—with respect to First ScotRail—many of them are operated by operators other than First ScotRail. The First ScotRail trains that stop at every station are not reliable enough. I am pleased that representatives of First ScotRail are in the public gallery tonight and I hope that they will listen to what has been said and recognise the concern that politicians in Fife feel about the inability of our constituents to do what they want to do for the environment, their own travelling comfort and the good of the Scottish economy, which is to reduce congestion on the roads by using the railways.

I make a plea to the minister, the train operators and everyone else to increase the amount of effort that we are making to improve disabled access. It is unfortunate that the way in which the companies are now structured means that responsibility for that is shared less widely than it might have been at one stage. It appears to me that, because it is the responsibility of only one body, nothing much is happening. I have disabled constituents who have written to me and to the rail operators because they are being denied the opportunity to use public transport. One constituent in particular must use either public transport or a taxi if they are to travel at all.

I call for more effort to be made in relation to disability issues and I call on First ScotRail to make more effort in relation to reliability. All of us need to get a sensible dialogue going about the proper balance between investment in roads—which, I point out to Mr Ruskell and others, is necessary—and investment in public transport infrastructure.

Photo of Nicol Stephen Nicol Stephen Liberal Democrat 5:48 pm, 13th April 2005

I, too, congratulate Scott Barrie on securing the debate. I indicate to Ted Brocklebank that I am taking up Iain Smith's invitation to travel during the peak period on the services that he mentioned. I look forward to Ted Brocklebank showing me examples of monorail projects that were delivered by the Conservatives during their 18 years in power. It is interesting to see his conversion to investment in public transport and I am pleased that the Executive has that investment as its priority.

Nobody can doubt the importance of the services that we are discussing, not only to the members who are present in the chamber this evening, but to communities in Fife. The services to and from Fife are major commuter routes and the demand for those services is strong. It is vital to keep those services attractive to the people of Fife to help our policy of getting people out of their cars and on to public transport.

Until recently, the trains running to Fife were principally type 150, carrying fewer than 200 passengers, and many of them dated from the 1980s. We were determined that there should be a better service on those and similar routes, which is why the Executive started its major project to buy 29 new trains to meet the growing expectations of passengers. Trains from the new class 170 fleet, carrying more than 270 people, now operate on the Fife circle route. On an average peak service, the capacity offered has risen by approximately 30 per cent. To make space for those newer, longer trains, the Executive carried out platform extension work on the Fife circle at North Queensferry, Dalgety Bay, Aberdour, Kinghorn, Glenrothes, Cardenden, Lochgelly, Cowdenbeath, Dunfermline Queen Margaret and Rosyth.

There is clear evidence that the Executive's policy of investing in our railways is delivering results. In the year to March 2005, the number of journeys made by rail increased by 11.5 per cent—the comparable figure for Fife services is 18 per cent. That represents an additional 431,000 journeys.

That proves the potential for rail in Scotland; indeed, everyone here tonight recognises that potential. As we offer frequent, high-capacity trains and better services, demand can grow dramatically. In turn, that is creating new pressures on rail services and on the availability of parking at rail stations. Our new challenge is to tackle those problems and to ensure that there are the sorts of improvements for which members are calling.

During the past year, levels of performance in Fife have given real cause for concern—the problem is not new. The passengers charter figures capture the current experience of passengers. The latest figures available for the group of services that includes the Fife circle services show that only 79 per cent of trains arrived within 5 minutes of their timetabled arrival time. That is clearly unacceptable when the target is 90 per cent. The figure for reliability—a measure of how many trains do not run because they have broken down, for example—is a good deal better, with performance at slightly over the 99 per cent target.

The three major causes of continuing poor performance relate, first, to First ScotRail delays and, secondly, to the level of congestion that is building up on the track. To a certain extent railways are like roads, in that when they are more heavily used and there are more vehicles on them, there is the risk that there will be congestion and trains will hold one another up. Finally, the level of reliability relates to the track and systems owned by Network Rail. That level is significantly poorer than we would wish.

Under the rail franchise, First ScotRail is required to deliver better performance year on year. The SRA and the Executive are working hard to ensure that First ScotRail remains on track to meet and exceed its targets. So far, despite the exceptionally severe weather that we have experienced, the early signs are encouraging. First ScotRail has shown month on month improvement since the franchise commenced and there has been better performance this year compared with the comparable period last year.

However, we recognise that significant problems remain. Where routes are giving the Executive particular cause for concern, First ScotRail must provide a detailed and measurable plan to allow us to focus on those areas for improvement. A plan for the Fife circle has been requested by the Executive and is due to be with us shortly for our consideration. We realise the importance of getting that right and are determined to see action.

Across the east of Scotland, growth in the amount of rail traffic—including freight—has put the operation of the network under considerable strain. Discussions are continuing between freight and passenger train operators and Network Rail to try to ensure the most efficient use of the tracks. We at the Scottish Executive are doing our bit, too. For example, the reopening of the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine line will provide a more efficient route for coal services to Longannet and will reduce congestion by removing coal trains from the Forth rail bridge. That will provide scope for developing passenger services to Fife and for improving the robustness and reliability of the timetable.

From the performance of the network over the past year, it is clear that issues have arisen for Network Rail in ensuring that it gets the most out of its assets. The periods of severe weather at the turn of the year, and their impact, highlighted the major problems that still face us.

Given that the causes of all the different sources of delay are not down to any single party or any one organisation, the solution to performance issues depends on a partnership approach. I recently met representatives of both Network Rail and First ScotRail to hear at first hand about their new joint plans for performance improvement over the coming year. It might seem self-evident, and common sense, that such a partnership approach should be taken, but the new approach started only this month—April 2005. I have made my expectations very clear to those organisations. Their principal focus, after safety, must be on delivering continued improvements in performance reliability. That applies to the Fife services in particular, because of their central importance.

Clearly, the potential for growth in rail across Scotland is strong. It is up to us all—the Executive, with our new powers under the Railways Act 2005, the train operating companies and Network Rail—to rise to the challenge and deliver a better quality of services with greater punctuality and reliability.

Meeting closed at 17:57.